It is “What if?” week at SB Nation, so we’ll have a few posts throughout the week looking at some “What ifs” from Red Sox history. This is one of those posts!
Fresh off a 90-72 season in 2011 that ended horribly, the Red Sox blew things up. Theo Epstein and Terry Francona were out. Ben Cherington and Bobby Valentine were in. The 2012 season could have gone better, to say the least. One of the best teams in baseball just went out and lost again and again until The Punto Trade with the Dodgers and a last place finish in the AL East. What this meant was that, for the first time in a generation, the Red Sox had a high pick in the draft. The seventh pick. Not since drafting Trot Nixon in 1993 had the Sox picked so early.
And the 2013 draft started with a bang: Mark Appel, Kris Bryant, Jon Gray, Kohl Stewart, Clint Frazier, Colin Moran. The Red Sox took Trey Ball, a two-way high school player from Indiana who they were going to use as a pitcher. To say Ball was a disappointment is an understatement. It’s a hard game and drafting is a tough job. Even Kris Bryant and Jon Gray are worlds apart as the top two success from that group. Not knowing that the Sox would have two more disaster years in 2014 and 2015, this pick, at the time, looked like a once-in-a-generation shot for the typically better-than-average Red Sox of the last several decades. In that respect, you would want them to make it count. Which brings us to, in hindsight, the best player still available at number seven when the Sox picked: Aaron Judge, a college player at California Sate University Fresno. The Oakland A’s tried to snag Judge out of high school in the 31st round in 2010, but he opted to go to school.
Picked 32nd overall by the Yankees with a compensation pick from the Cleveland Indians, Judge has been everything the team could have wanted and more. While Ball would find himself ranked 89th by Baseball America in 2014, Judge would not make their top 100 prospects. But it wouldn’t matter, and from that point on Judge would get to work. He crushed low-A and High-A with a .308/.419/.486 performance including 17 homers in his first 131 professional games. While his Double-A and Triple-A numbers were nothing to write home about, he continued to progress through the system showing power and respectable, if not otherworldly, on-base skills.
In our alternate universe, Judge can still debut in 2016 for a cup of coffee and struggle a bit: .179/.263/.345. That doesn’t move the needle on the 2016 season and quick playoff exit. Where we start to see the dividends is, of course, 2017. Judge wins the AL Rookie of the Year (topping Andrew Benintendi) award and comes in second in MVP voting on the back of a .284/.422/.627 performance with 52 home runs, 127 walks, 128 runs scored, and 208 strikeouts - all league leading numbers. That one season is worth just shy of 8 WAR, fully half of Judge’s career to date. Which isn’t to say that a 6 WAR or 5.5 WAR campaign in injury-limited seasons is anything to sneeze at.
While the Sox lineup was fine, it missed a big bat. After a rebound in 2016, Hanley Ramiez was flat once again, just not able to live up to his career numbers anymore. Swapping his .750 OPS campaign for Judge’s 1.000 and adding 29 home runs to Hanley’s 23 and that lineup looks different. Chris Young played 90 games. Pablo Sandoval himself was still around for 32 games! Judge as a rookie isn’t using much salary room, either, so we can basically just slot him in without worrying about what limitations Dave Dombrowski would have faced with Judge on the roster.
After that breakout, the Red Sox enter 2017 with Andrew Benintendi, Jackie Bradley Jr., Mookie Betts, and Aaron Judge to cover three outfield positions and rotate some time at DH. Maybe J.D. Martinez isn’t even a priority for 2018 — or maybe he is and we see them team up like Ortiz and Manny back in their glory days. Of course, Judge might still suffer the same injuries in his Fenway life, so Martinez is still a big piece of keeping that 2018 season in tact. But if we drop some type of imaginary Judge still worth about 6 WAR into the lineup replacing Bradley, shifting Mookie Betts to center field, and benefiting from whatever they’d have gotten from a Bradley trade, it’s stuff to dream about.
Could the 2018 team have been even better? I can’t even imagine it. While the butterfly flaps its wings, we’re going to assume that team was good enough that any defensive drop from Mookie covering center field instead of Bradley for any given play won’t be enough to shift the timeline. Imagine the pictures of Mookie and Judge, a real-life giant, celebrating wins...Maybe this even moves Mookie back to second base to permanently replace Dustin Pedroia?
Mookie as the new second baseman could have ripples around the league. For one, he’d be the best second baseman in baseball, guaranteed of an All-Star Game spot every year, most likely. While the shift in position for a year or two wouldn’t eliminate something like the Dodgers trade, where they would likely put him back into right or center field, maybe with the Martinez contract and potential Chris Sale extension and another budding superstar the finances would have been examined more closely before Mookie was dealt for salary relief. Of course, maybe Judge is viewed as a cheaper Mookie replacement and history unfolds the same. But hey, we’d still have Aaron Judge! And he’s the focus here.
(If you’ve been looking for the corresponding Trey Ball impact...there was none. He was just a disaster in the minors. It’s a shame, I was really waiting for the Trey Ball! jokes after he was drafted. Alas.)
What about 2019? Unfortunately Yankees Aaron Judge was limited to 102 games but still put up a .921 OPS and slugged 27 homers. Does that boost the Sox record enough to sneak into the playoffs? Unfortunately for Bradley, it probably means less playing time for him during those games if he’s even still with the team, and taking a .317 OBP out of the lineup probably boosts the run scoring a little bit. However, improving on 84-78 without any new pitchers? It’s still a big fight.
As for this year, we know that baseball is uncertain right now. But Aaron Judge is in the prime of his career and will be back for 2020 and 2021 and as many seasons afterwards as he is able to participate.